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LOG LINE: In the early 1980s a young artist with a fatal medical condition moves to the shadow world of New York City’s Lower East Side, intent on covering his face with tattoos in defiance of the ban against tattooing then in place, and in so doing transforms himself into a pioneer of American sideshow performance as the Illustrated Man.

SUMMARY:  1987. A man walks on to a theatre stage at Coney Island wearing a scarecrow costume and a bag over his head.  Approaching the microphone he introduces himself to the audience as the Illustrated Man. His performance begins with a monologue on the history of tattooing. As he’s talking in a calm baritone patter, he slowly strips out of his costume down to a little pair of shorts. This is so the crowd can see how vast the tattooing on his own body really goes, and why his stage name is so fitting. The tattooing even extends across his face, which you will see when the bag finally comes off. For a finale, he will perform a classic sideshow act called the Iron Tongue in which he gracefully lays his tongue across a piece of 2 x 4 and drives a 5-penny nail through it with a hammer. Between gasps of horror and loud applause, he will gently bow to the audience and thank them kindly for their attention, as any gentleman would. 

His name was Michael Wilson.

Reporters covering the first new sideshow Coney Island had seen in a generation clamored for the opportunity to take Michael’s picture, and the media attention sparked his fame. Jean Paul Gaultier hired him as a fashion model. Andy Warhol photographed him. Geraldo Rivera interviewed him.

1982. New York City, the year in which Michael arrived, was a cultural tinderbox that was ready to blow. Coming out of a succession of riots, rolling blackouts and governmental bankruptcy, the City was plunging headlong into the era of crack and what would become the worst of the AIDS crisis. These were also rap’s early days, punk’s golden years, and the utopia that was the East Village art scene was in full bloom. Pre-gentrification New York was a black hole that offered anyone brave enough to dance at the edge of its vortex the opportunity to reinvent themselves in any manner they saw fit. Michael came to New York to manifest his dream character, the Illustrated Man. 

1961. A ban against tattooing, introduced into law by the New York City Department of Health remained in effect when Michael arrived.  Tattoo artists who decided to work illegally after the ban started, and the next generation of young tattooists whose only experience was working underground, plied their craft from unmarked rental spaces, or in many cases, their own apartments. The regulation remained on the books for 36 years and would not be reversed until 1997. The outlaw culture born during the ban created the opportunity for Michael to break the social taboo of marking the face. 

1962. At the age of 10, Michael was diagnosed with insulin dependent brittle diabetes. He was told that if he took good care of himself, ate right and monitored his insulin, he could expect the disease to kill him by the age of 25. It was a death sentence handed down to a child. The umbrella question that clouds Michael’s entire story is: IF YOU KNOW YOU ARE GOING TO DIE YOUNG, WHAT LIFE CHOICES DO YOU MAKE WITH THE TIME YOU HAVE REMAINING? Michael’s choice was to LIVE, as vibrantly as he could, by rules of his own design for which there would be no compromise. Tattooing his body was on a list he made while still in high school of the things he wanted to accomplish before dying. Michael would even tell one of his early boyfriends that one day he was going to be VERY tattooed, and when that day arrived, ‘You probably won’t want to be with me anymore.'

When Michael started tattooing his face in 1983, laser removal was not a viable option. His actions crossed a line from which there could be no return. Also, Michael made himself into a sideshow character at a time when there was literally no sideshow for him to join. The fact that the Coney Island Sideshow would come into existence a few years after he tattooed his face, and would serve as the perfect vehicle for the exhibition of his creation, was serendipity. 

1990. At the highpoint of his career, Michael was injured in a hit-and-run incident with no suspect ever being identified. One leg was shattered and required major surgery to shore up the broken bones with plates and screws.  The accident signaled the beginning of his long and drawn out end.  Michael was reckless with his health. He had a long history of over-drinking and recreational drug use that included heroin. The harder drugs slowly started to increase after the accident, if for nothing else than to self-medicate against the chronic pain he suffered after being hit by the car.  

As his diabetes continued to progress, Michael was looking at a future of dialysis, blindness, and the possible amputation of toes. The last known conversation Michael had was at lunch with a friend from the sideshow whose act was eating light bulbs and jumping barefoot on broken glass. Michael wanted to brainstorm ideas to update his act for the next season.  Expanding on the idea of the Iron Tongue, maybe he could lift a bucket of rocks with a chain attached to his piercing? It might look dramatic if the stage lights were shut off and instead of a bucket of rocks it was a bucket of fire. A date was put on the calendar for the following week to start practicing the new routine.

Michael’s cultural influence as a public celebrity has been, without question, profound. It matters when someone like Michael goes on TV before a conservative studio audience that expects a Neanderthal’ish outburst from someone that looked like him, and instead is presented with a soft spoken, kind, highly intelligent, highly rational and often very funny person. It matters when fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier chooses someone like Michael, who was considered by the majority of the public at the time to be a complete freak for tattooing himself the way he did, and through the association of couture is now declared an ‘ideal.’

Michael was one of many high profile individuals from the tattoo community who participated in shifting the perception of tattoo from objectionable to aspirational, taking the craft from back alley art ritual to 1.6 billion dollar governmentally regulated global industry.  It would be misleading, though, to describe Michael’s journey as anything other than that of a man who was simply along for the roller coaster ride of his own life.  Michael did not have an agenda to affect change on society. He just lived. His influence and legacy wasn’t calculated. It just is. Michael’s creative endeavors were private and deeply personal, and the celebrity and fame he achieved in his lifetime had to do with something entirely different.  

1996. Michael died alone in his apartment at 44. Nearly doubling his projected life expectancy, Michael would finally succumb to the diabetes that had cast its long shadow over his entire life. Having completed the masterpiece of tattooing his body, and dying ironically the year before legalization went into effect, Michael could finally rest.

This is the biography of a boy who runs away to join the circus. It is a celebration of the adventure life can be and the unrelenting dedication it takes to make one’s dream come true. This film is a love letter to the Illustrated Man and to the city on which he has left his indelible mark.



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